Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is Ninja Theory’s new independent game featuring Norse and Celtic mythology, surrounding a young woman named Senua as she struggles to overcome the death of her loved one, Dillion, and journeys to Hell to rescue him. As you play through the game, not only are you questioning what’s real – you’re questioning what really happened, or if this is all in Senua’s mind.
The game is described as an “independent AAA” game as Ninja Theory didn’t put it through a triple-A publisher, and this is a perfect description of the masterpiece they developed with their small, quaint team.
For those of you who don’t know, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tells the story of Senua, a Celtic warrior, on her journey to Hell, but also sheds a light onto mental illness including schizophrenia and psychosis. Though mental illness can be a tough subject to touch upon in general, Ninja Theory developed a story surrounding the premise with the respect and dignity it deserves in an enthralling video game that makes the player unable to put the controller down.
As we played through Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the environment, atmosphere, and emotions pouring through the game created an experience that will never be duplicated.
Beware: Spoilers Below
At the start of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the player is immediately thrown into an atmosphere riddled with voices that criticize and lay scrutiny on Senua throughout her journey, as she struggles to overcome her fears of traveling through Hell to save Dillion’s soul. We could tell from the beginning that this game was destined to be dark, as corpses riddle the world Senua travels through.
The game lays out an opening of Senua traveling down a river toward her Hell bound destination, where Ninja Theory gives credit to their Mental Health Advisor, Paul Fletcher and the Historical Advisor, Elizabeth Ashman-Rowe for their additions to this game. Once Senua arrives at the end of the river, she is given the task of having to defeat two gods, Surtr the God of Fire, and Valravn the God of Illusion before she can face Hela in Hell and save Dillion. While this may sound like a quick and easy task, the game provides an abundance of foes to fight ranging in how much damage they can take and give. Not to mention, there are rune puzzles to solve in each God’s respective location, and illusion challenges.
Along the way, the game provides lorestones voiced by Senua’s friend from her village, Druth, as he teaches her Norse mythology and coaches her throughout the game. At one crucial point in the game, the voice of Druth is replaced in Senua’s mind with that of her abusive father, Zynbel, who criticizes and attempts to persuade Senua to give up on her journey.
As the game progresses, there are other smaller quests and side tracks that are required for the player to complete Senua’s mission. For instance, Senua faces Hela mid-way in the game, but is unable to defeat her and breaks her weapon.
Looking for another suitable sword, Senua follows what she believes is Dillion’s light to a corpse tree, and new and more powerful weapon that requires her to unlock all four pieces and battle against the shadows of her past.One truly and amazingly unexpected aspect of the game is how Ninja Theory input Druth and Dillion as true videos instead of animated characters.
This has been seen before in their earlier game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and in Cyan’s point-and-click Myst. I perceived these videos as Senua’s hallucinations of imagining that Druth and Dillion were truly there. Nonetheless, they proved to be a surprise in the game and added to the gameplay.
While this is not a primarily combat game, and features more puzzles and mental challenges of the mind, there is quite a bit of fighting that takes place between Senua and the God bosses. There were smaller foes that came along as stated above, ranging in difficulty, and they truly put up a good fight. Mechanics regarding their stances and movements were repetitive, but in a way that provided guidance on how to get the best of them.
Senua’s fighting happens primarily with a sword and her using Druth’s mirror to ‘focus’ and slow time. This provides with the ability to do combos and put some real damage into foes that she faces. There are plenty of combo options along with running and forcing an enemy to recoil, and charging up a weapon to do some extra damage.
For a game that didn’t focus on fighting and more on story, they did a great job on providing some very tough brawls.
Story and Characters
When walking into Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I never imagined the story would progress as deeply and profoundly as it had. Not only does it cover Senua’s mental illnesses in an exceptional way, it also provides story into her mother Galena, father Zynbel, lover Dillion, and her friend Druth.
As stated above, Senua faces mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia and psychosis, but it is also shown her mother Galena was fighting the same battles. Though her mother passed on before the setting of the game in a very plot exploding way, she shows up in the game through finding her faces in the environment, and she guides Senua to keep progressing on her journey.
Senua’s father Zynbel was a druid fanatic that not only abused Senua, but also her mother. Because he didn’t understand their mental illness of schizophrenia, he physically abused them and locked Senua up because he believed it was a curse from the Gods. Zynbel thought this was her “darkness” and shamed her for it, and spread rumors that problems such as the plague where her fault.
Druth is another character that guides Senua on her journey by teaching her Norse mythology and giving slight hints. What is learned about Druth throughout this journey is that he was an escaped slave of the Vikings that raided Senua’s village. He knows of their ways because he lived alongside them.
Dillion is Senua’s love who was taken from her. While he passed in a Viking battle before the start of the game, he is shown in flashbacks and memories from Senua. Starting from when they met up until he died, Senua tells the story of their love and how he rescued her from Zynbel and showed her the light in her darkness.
The story of the game has many layers developed, including a love story, a warrior’s challenge, and overcoming one’s own fear.
Going in, I thought the story would truly encompass the travel of Senua saving Dillion’s soul from Hell, because that’s a game I believe could be made – but I never expected the game to take a journey of Senua coping with losing Dillion and also fighting her battles of mental illness. Playing through, it’s questionable what’s real and what’s made up in Senua’s mind through hallucinations and alternate memories that eventually become factual.
Atmosphere & Audio
The atmosphere of the game is extraordinary because Ninja Theory did their research and studies on exactly how schizophrenia would affect Senua. As we played the game with headphones in as recommended by Ninja Theory, they have numerous voices talking constantly in Senua’s mind and into your own. Some were helpful in guiding Senua and saying there was a foe behind her, and others were downright mean and cruel throughout the journey. At some points in time, they acted as if they were their own entity and pleaded with Senua to turn back so they wouldn’t die.
Listening to the audio and the battle music, the theme remained on Norse and Celtic mythology. The music was fitting to the atmosphere and environment of ‘Hell’ and danger. It reminded me of ancient music constituting chanting. When there wasn’t a huge battle going on, the game refrained from having verbal music, and instead provided instrumentals for all the sections.
The ending song titled “Illusion” by VNV Nation pulled the entire theme of the game together providing lyrics that speak not only of Senua but the curious journey the player has been through.
I will not disclose the full ending here due to completely ruining the game for anyone who reads this. But let me just say, Senua faced a tough journey full of turmoil and accepting herself, and the idea of completely losing Dillion. She faced many battles along the way that challenged her and her mental illness of schizophrenia. The ending is mind boggling, heart breaking, and perfect.My Own Take
This game was beautifully laid out and expressed some of the fears and takes on mental illnesses such as schizophrenia that society of ancient worlds and our own has. Ninja Theory did a fantastic job on creating a game around a young woman facing a mental illness and also coping with the terrible traumatic things that have happened in her life.